How Scrivener Will Help You Write and Edit Your Book

I received a question this week from a reader who wanted to know if I would recommenced Scrivener for writing a novel.

My answer was a resounding YES.

I’m a big fan of Scrivener. I discovered it when writing my second novel, and haven’t looked back.

And I’m using it this year for my NaNoWriMo project.

In this post, I’m going to try and explain just why I find Scrivener so useful. But instead of giving you a list of features in Scrivener (there are a lot), I’m going to explain my writing process and tell you how Scrivener helps me at each stage. Hopefully that will help you decide if Scrivener is right for you, and learn how to use it to improve your own writing process.

So let’s dive in…

Before You Start: Importing From Word to Scrivener

This is something I’ve only done a handful of times, but will probably be part of your process the first time you use Scrivener. That’s because most of us start off writing our first manuscript in Word and then switch to Scrivener when we become frustrated by it.

I decided to switch to Scrivener for three reasons:

  • I wanted to be able to work on each chapter separately, much easier in Scrivener than Word.
  • I wanted to save metadata to each chapter so I could keep a record of which characters appeared, what the location was and more. You definitely can’t do that in Word.
  • Scrivener has a fantastic 30 day free trial which isn’t for 30 chronological days, but for 30 days of writing. So if you only write one day a week, you get it for 30 weeks.

I downloaded my free trial of Scrivener and imported my manuscript. You can automatically separate out your chapters by putting a placeholder between them and then telling Scrivener to separate out chapters at those placeholders – follow this guide for details.

Once I had my manuscript in Scrivener, I could then work on it more effectively. I’ll describe exactly what this looks like as I work through my process below.

My Normal Starting Point – Index Cards

If you’ve used my Novel Planning Workbook, you’ll know that my plotting process culminates in a chapter-by-chapter outline of my story. Each chapter will have a few lines detailing what happens.

I used to write these out on Post-it notes and move them around on my desk or kitchen table.

This was fine – it made my house look lovely and colorful and after I was done, I would stick them all into a notebook so I still had them.

But now I don’t do that. Instead, I use the cork board view in Scrivener.

In this view, each card is a chapter. The text you see on the card is a summary of what happens in that chapter. I use a color coding system, which differs according to the book:

  • For some books, each color corresponds to a POV character.
  • For some books, it corresponds to a strand of the plot.
  • For some books, it corresponds to a theme.

It doesn’t really matter, and you don’t have to use color coding if you don’t want to. But I find it useful to get a quick visual snapshot of how the POV characters or the subplots are balanced and whether I’m using one of them too much.

I can then easily drag and drop cards around on the outliner, which will reorder those chapters in the book. This means that before I start, Scrivener is helping me to tweak the structure of my project and make it better.

Writing the First Draft

Once the plan is in place, it’s time to start writing.

Scrivener treats each chapter like a separate entity within your manuscript, but without you having to keep them as separate files as you would if you wanted to do that in Word.

Here’s the view you get when you’re writing a chapter.

The main elements of this view are:

On the left, there’s a list of all the chapters. You can see the color coding in mine, which for this book is by POV.

In the center is the editing pane. This is fairly clutter-free and has formatting options – although I don’t use many of them. I prefer to do most of the formatting later on in Vellum, but you can do it here in Scrivener if you want.

At the top right is the same text from the card you created for this chapter. This is a very high level overview of the chapter.

Below that is the notes for this chapter. For my first draft, I use this to create a more detailed outline of the chapter before I start writing. For subsequent drafts I use it to note the changes I need to make.

At the bottom right is the label – which is the color coding. Next to that is the status of the chapter. You can create your own labels and your own statuses. I use the status to mark what draft each chapter is on.

All this is already giving you a lot more information than you get in Word, and we haven’t got to the meat of it yet.

Another great feature for first drafts is targets. You can set a target for the whole manuscript and by day, and see at the top of the screen how you’re doing.

Extra useful during NaNoWriMo!

Editing – Statuses, Collections and More

Once I’ve written my first draft of each chapter I take a snapshot of it. This means that I can roll back to a given draft if I want to. You can find snapshots on the right hand side of the screen by clicking the camera icon.

Scrivener will automatically generate snapshots every time you save your project and on every autosave.

If you wanted to, you could duplicate the entire project to create your next draft. I don’t do this myself because I use snapshots instead. But it’s up to you.

As I finish each draft of a chapter, I change its status at the bottom of the screen. This helps me track progress.

You can then use the Collections feature on the left hand side to create a list of collections by status – so when you’re working on your second draft, you could create a collection for all first draft chapters and watch it diminish as you make your way through the edits. I find collections really useful for my ‘needs work’ status,. which are chapters that need a rewrite because I’m not happy with them or need editing because something has changed elsewhere in the book that has a knock-on effect.

You can also see the status of your chapters in the list view, which lists all the chapters in your manuscript.

This gives you a quick way to see where you’re up to and how much progress you’re making.

Keeping Track of Things – Metadata

When I’m editing, I start adding metadata to my manuscript. I tend to track which characters appear in a scene and where the scene takes place. This way, if I change something about a character or a location, I can easily find which chapters I might need to edit.

I use keywords for this, and custom metadata for more in-depth notes on the chapter and what it’s attempting to achieve.

I haven’t used the custom metadata fields so much in recent projects as I find I do this kind of thing naturally, but for some of my earlier novels, I created custom fields to record things like what the chapter’s purpose was, what the emotional trajectory is, and how it linked to the wider story.

If you use a system like the Story Grid or the Snowflake method for individual scenes, this can be a useful way of storing metadata on each chapter. If you don’t, and you prefer to keep things simple, just leave that feature alone.

But I do use keywords on all projects, because it helps me to be organized. As you can see in the example above, I’ve noted the characters and the location, plus a theme (the relationship between two characters). If you’ve read the book this is from, you might have spotted that the protagonist has the wrong name in places in this screenshot – I changed it halfway through!

When You’re Done – Exporting

Scrivener will export to Word with no problem. It creates a tidy Word document you can send to your editor.

I tried using Scrivener with my editor on my second book, but it really didn’t work. This is because Scrivener doesn’t track changes. And for collaborative editing, track changes is the single most important feature you need. For that reason, I work in Word once I get to the stage that I’m working with my editor.

If you want to continue working in Scrivener and export your final book to mobi and pub, you can. Scrivener has a ‘Compile’ feature that does this. But in my experience it takes a LOT of fiddling to get it right. It may have improved in the eighteen months since I last tried it, so I recommend you try it out. But if you can afford Vellum (and you use a Mac), I strongly recommend using that instead. It will turn a Word document into a beautiful book in a matter of minutes.

So that’s how I use Scrivener! I hope you’ve found this guide useful, and I hope it’s helped you decide whether Scrivener is right for you.

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